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How a Memphis Native Made the Journey to ‘Inside Out 2’

By meerna Jul11,2024
How a Memphis Native Made the Journey to ‘Inside Out 2’

When Louise Smythe was a child, she drew perfect portraits of The Lion King and other Disney cartoon characters on her Etch A Sketch, to the delight and sadness of her proud parents and other relatives.

Consternation? Yes, because after sharing the photo, Louise shook the board, carelessly erasing the evidence of her talent. “I’ll just do another one,” she said.

Today is different. Today Smythe’s craft is indelible.

As the primary story creator for Inside Out 2 , Smythe played a key role in Pixar’s sequel, which is the best film of 2024 to date — a runaway hit that earned critical acclaim, more than $1.2 billion at the international box office and the gratitude of a film industry eager to prove that audiences haven’t given up on going to the movies.

Memphis artist Louise Smythe is the lead artist on the story "From inside to outside 2," is an increasingly important member of the Pixar production team.Memphis artist Louise Smythe is the lead artist on the story "From inside to outside 2," is an increasingly important member of the Pixar production team.

Memphis artist Louise Smythe, lead story artist on Inside Out 2, is an increasingly important member of Pixar’s production team.

“It’s really important to us that the film resonates with a lot of people,” Smythe, 36, said in a telephone interview from her office at Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, California.

Smythe worked particularly closely on the development of a key new character in the computer-animated film, Anxiety (voiced by Maya Hawke), a nervous gremlin with free-floating eyebrows, a wobbly mouth, and a firework of red hair. Anxiety arrives laden with suitcases—a visual joke on “emotional baggage,” one of Smythe’s contributions to the clever story, in which characters traversing the mental environment encounter such hazards as “brainstorm,” “stream of consciousness,” “avalanche of bad memories,” and “sar-chaśm,” a canyon that transforms echoes into insults.

Though Anxiety sets up a crisis in the mind of a 13-year-old girl, Riley (Kensington Tallman), who’s just starting to go through puberty (Riley was 11 in the first 2015 film), the film presents the unsettling new emotion as an overprotective friend rather than a monster, even as her fevered turmoil disrupts the status quo of stability established by seasoned emotions like Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).

Smythe said that because anxiety is “something we all experience on some level,” the new film “has really connected with a diverse audience.”

She said that anxiety can be particularly acute in teenagers and preschool children, which is why it is “useful for them to watch a film that presents something as complicated as their emotions through imagery or language.”

Fear (voiced by Maya Hawke, center) takes control of Riley's emotions in the animated sequel "From inside to outside 2."Fear (voiced by Maya Hawke, center) takes control of Riley's emotions in the animated sequel "From inside to outside 2."

Fear (voiced by Maya Hawke, center) takes control of Riley’s emotions in the animated sequel “Inside Out 2.”

Plus, “I could relate to it right away,” Smythe said. “Riley’s transition from middle school to high school, trying to fit in and make new friends, and putting too much pressure on herself to succeed, those were all things I’d had to deal with in my own life. The personal connection was immediate. And just the experience of being a teenager was something I could bring to the game, remembering what that was like.”

The eldest of three artistic children (brother William Smythe is a writer and sister Mary Claire Smythe is an actress whose credits include the Anne Rice-inspired AMC series “Mayfair Witches”), Louise Smythe grew up in Central Gardens with an immediate affinity, instinct and talent for art that was encouraged by her parents, Hamilton Smythe IV and his wife Julia. In fact, “I have her first drawing, from when she was 2,” said Julia Smythe, 65. “It’s a little piece of paper. It’s literally a scribble, but a beautiful scribble, so I kept it.”

Louise’s aunt, Katie Smythe, a founder of the New Ballet Ensemble, remembers that once, young Louise drew a large picture in colored chalk on the driveway that seemed abstract or surreal. “You couldn’t see it when you were at ground level, it was too big, but when you went up to the third floor and looked down, it was The Lion King. I don’t know how she did it.”

Louise Smythe, a 2006 graduate of The Hutchison School, initially thought about illustrating children’s books. Despite a childhood obsession with Disney, “I didn’t really understand that animation was a viable career.”

She learned something else when she started watching behind-the-scenes footage on Disney DVDs. It revealed a possible career path. “They showed ‘Aladdin,’ ‘The Lion King,’ ‘The Little Mermaid,’ all these movies I loved as a kid. I was blown away. The drawings came to life at 24 frames a second, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

In addition to art, Smythe’s interests included film and theater, as well as storytelling in general. “I realized that in animation you can do all of these things—writing, acting, design. It’s a really cool combination of all of these art forms in one.”

Memphis artist Louise Smythe is working on "From inside to outside 2" in her office on the Pixar campus in Emeryville, California.Memphis artist Louise Smythe is working on "From inside to outside 2" in her office on the Pixar campus in Emeryville, California.

Memphis artist Louise Smythe works on “Inside Out 2” in her office on the Pixar campus in Emeryville, California.

After graduating with a degree in art from Washington University in St. Louis, Smythe worked as a freelance artist, illustrating books and even designing characters for a “Scooby-Doo” project at Warner Bros. But her Disney-esque “When You Wish on a Star” dream didn’t really take off until 12 years ago, when, after numerous applications and rejections, she was accepted for a “narrative internship” at Pixar.

“It’s kind of like boot camp for storytellers,” she said. “College on steroids.” But Smythe not only thrived in this fun but intense environment, she was hired as a full-time Pixar employee.

Smythe’s first project at Pixar was the 2012 short film “Toy Story That Time Forgot.” She then worked her way up the art and story departments on such feature films as “The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 3,” “Toy Story 4” and “Onward.”

“Story” in animation jargon doesn’t mean “plot” or “script.” “Story” is short for “storyboard,” but the story department does more than just create sequential comic-book-style drawings that “storyboard” the action of the film.

The story department essentially translates the film’s narrative into visuals. As the first-time “lead story artist,” Smythe presented designs and drew storyboards to guide the animators, and helped oversee the storyboard team. She regularly met with the film’s masterminds—including director Kelsey Mann, a longtime friend who had come through Pixar’s story department—to discuss the development of such new characters as Lance Slashblade, a handsome video game refugee, and Pouchy, a chatty kidney patient.

“In the script department, we work on everything,” Smythe said. “I would often be in the writers’ room with the writer, producer and director, sometimes six hours a day, writing (the narrative) on cards and breaking it down structurally. So you’re thinking about the structure of the story, the storytelling, but you’re also drawing.

“We take these script pages and literally draw the movie almost like a comic book, sew them together and overlay (temporary sound), and then test-screen it before we animate anything. Every few months, we take it apart and redo it” to make it better. Smythe usually works digitally, but at some point in the Pixar process, almost every kind of artistic medium comes into play: pencil, ink, sculpture, software, etc.

“Inside Out 2” took four years to make. “Once you’re in a project, you’re in it for the long haul,” Smythe said. Such painstaking perfectionism is typical of Pixar, she said, but the standards are inspiring, not frustrating.

Audiences clearly noticed the care put into “Inside Out 2.” Only the third Pixar film to receive an exclusive theatrical release since the COVID pandemic in 2020, “Inside Out 2” cost about $200 million to make but set a Pixar record by earning nearly $300 million worldwide in its first weekend of release on June 14. Described by Variety as a “box office monster” and “a box office phenomenon the likes of which the industry hasn’t seen since ‘Barbie’ almost a year ago,” the film earned more than $1 billion in its first month. According to Box Office Mojo, it’s already the sixth-highest-grossing animated film of all time.

In other words, Anxiety is home, but Joy is back in control at Pixar. Smythe finds them useful companions. “They’re my dynamic duo,” she said, “running my console, albeit a little more harmoniously now than they were when I was Riley’s age.”

John Beifuss covers entertainment, popular culture, and features for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis Pixar Artist: Why the Unease in ‘Inside Out 2’ Makes Sense to You

By meerna

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